A day with Dabbawallas : of bonhomie, hardwork, discipline and dreams

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Who has not heard of the Mumbai dabbawallas –  in case you have not, may like to see this Youtube link https://youtu.be/fTkGDXRnR9I

I had a chance to spend a day with them and see their work closely. Ahilu, the mukadam (supervisor) of Ville Parle group met me at Ville Parle East station at around 9 am. Despite being a Mukadam, he was collecting dabbas himself that day, one of his group members being on leave. ‘हम भी तो पगार लेते हैं, फिर हमें मेहनत करने में संकोच क्यूँ ?’ Ahilu left Pune when he was in his teens, when his father died, to join his cousins/ Uncles who were dabbawallas. Having worked for nearly twenty years as a dabbawalla, he is a mukadam (supervisor) now.

In his interaction with his group, he seemed 1st amongst equals, not displaying any ‘bossism’, but helping out his team members. As we reach the 1st house 15 minutes in advance, the lady of the house asked us to wait for some time. Waiting and having tea, Ahilu invites another dabbawalla over – he later tells that that dabbawalla was also a muqadam, but due to his poor work habits, all his team members has left him now, and he does collection only with his son. Still Ahilu called him over for tea, depicting an overall camarederie between dabbawallas.

We collect dabbas from around 10 houses – being a Saturday, it is less. Ahilu remembers exactly, which house in which building to go to ! Remember, he doesn’t go to these houses daily : he is covering for one of his team members. Which means he knows exactly the route and houses for all the 25 odd members of his team. He says, besides him, two other members of his team know this entire detail by heart, so that work doesn’t stop. In many government offices, it is common to hear , ‘ सम्बंधित व्यक्ति छुट्टी पे है, उस के आने पे आप पता कीजिए’. He is not literate, and does not use GPS. We do. And still (due to that) we do not memorise such information. Perhaps, our dependence on gadgets – and ‘curse of knowledge’ has affected our faculties ?

On other days, a dabbawalla may collect between 10-50 dabbas, depending on the number of customers in the ‘line’ he is allotted. Being owners themselves, entire money collected from the customers belongs to dabbawallas. But this is striking : each dabbawalla takes equal share of the collection of the entire group. I asked Ahilu if collection of each is not dependent on how many dabbas he collects? He said no, and explained why – ‘ किसी की लाइन (area allotted to each member) में दूर दूर ghar होते हैं; और उसे कम dabbe इक्कट्ठे करने में भी उतना ही समय लग जाता है; जिन कॉलनीज़ में ज़्यादा कस्टमर हैं, वहाँ के ज़्यादा dabbe होते हैं जो उतने ही समय में collect होते हैं’. On 7th of each month, the group sits together and the muqadam distributes the share equally amongst them. Each link work towards strengthning the entire chain. This team spirit, between the group, and between other groups, is unique to dabbawallas’ work, and cannot be duplicated through any computer programme.

From 9.30 am to 10.30 am, we collected dabbas. Without wearing a watch, and without any anxiety, Ahilu knew that we (and all his other team members) would reach the designated spot at 10.30 am, where everyone from his group gathers; each having collected dabbas from their respective ‘lines’. The dabbas are collected on the good old ‘Hero’ cycles that seem sturdy for the job. The carrier of the cycle has few hooks on which dabbas can be hung. Some dabbas are tied directly in knot to the carrier, smaller ones are also tied to the handle. Each dabbawalla has two bicycles, one at the collecting station, and other at the distributing station. I saw these cycles kept unlocked outside station, and asked Ahilu, if there was no risk of these being stolen. He replied in the negative. Everyone knows these are dabbawallas’ cycles and leaves them undisturbed. Just as they are allowed hassle free entry in respective buildings, offices etc. They are recognisable by their topis (caps) that are compulsory for them.

Once the dabbas of Ville Parle were collected, they were segregated railway station-wise – those going to Andheri, those to Churchgate etc. Each group member, including Ahilu helped in this segregation. The dabbas were loosely tied together, so that they could be picked up as a group. Even if each dabba weighed around 250 grams ( could be 500 grams to a kilo as well), with 10-30 dabbas on their shoulder, dabbawallas would be picking up 2.5 – 7.5 kg weight. Certainly not an easy task. Each member of Ahilu group picked up the lot of dabbas meant for his designated station and we went to board the train. I accompanied Ahilu to Andheri. We boarded in the general compartment. Ahilu said the dabbawallas have a train ‘pass’.

We got down at Andheri station. Outside the station, there were dabbawallas who had collected dabbas from other parts of Mumbai – just as we had collected from Ville Parle. They kept the dabbas on the road side in groups numbering 1-81. Each number represented the destination for one dabbawalla, where he would deliver the dabbas. Ahilu, from the marks on his dabbas, and even otherwise, knew in which all numbered lots, he had to place which all of his dabbas; a task that he completed in less than five minutes ! He also collected from the numbered lots, dabbas that were to be taken back to Ville Parle – dabbas meant for people working in Ville Parle, but staying in Andheri, and collected that morning by the Andheri group, just as Ahilu’s group had collected from Vile Parle. Being a muqadam, he also took a round to see if his group members (two of them had accompanied him to Andheri) needed any help. The congregation point was a lively place – dabbawallas from different groups stealing few minutes to chat with each other, have tea together, sharing their family issues, financial issues. A dabbawalla had his foot swollen, but happily came for work, saying ‘ घर बैठ के भी क्या करना है :)’ Clearly, it was a big family, big joint family, that interacted willingly and effortlessly. Have been in gatherings of doctors and bureaucrats and sensed a greater bonhomie amongst the dabbawallas than the educated professional groups.

One reason for this bonhomie could be that all the dabbawallas belong to varkari sect, religious people worshipping Vitthal ( incarnation if Krishna), and leading a simple moral altruistic life. Other virtues – hardwork, equality and equanimity, discipline, lack of vices – perhaps also flow from the religious belief. On Ashadi Ekadshi, they take two day leave to go to Pandarpur, place of Vitthal.

From Andheri, we took return train to Vile Parle, and distributed dabbas there. All this was completed pre -lunch. Ahilu takes pride in the fact that dabbawallas always deliver the dabbas right in time – appropriate time before lunch. He mentioned some others tried to imitate their model. One person deployed vehicles for fast delivery too. Dabbas in that case reached almost in the morning – customers did not like that and his business could not establish. After delivery in Ville Parle, Ahilu gets a one hour or so break when he has his lunch. His own dabba – he carries from home ! I bid him good bye at lunch time. I gave him some tip – that he is to share with his group. The tip was well worth the insight, learning and time spent with them. Many discussions amongst the dabbawallas centred around their financial condition – indicating perhaps that this hard work job pays enough to run the house, but may not be too comfortably. However, dabbawallas being mostly illiterate, may not have many other options at jobs. Plus, given the good community feeling, they find the job good. As varkaris, they anyways are contended people.

Post lunch Ahilu would make another trip to Andheri, to return Andheri dabbas and bring back Ville Parle dabbas. Thus, each dabbawallas makes two trips in a day, first to deliver the dabbas at work places, and second to collect the empty dabbas and deliver them back homes.

Everyone’s job is important; but food certainly occupies a prime position. Non delivery of food in time is an emergency – food is that critical. Delivery of wrong dabba is a smaller emergency. None of this happens, thanks to the meticulous rehearsed human system of dabbawallas. In case there is a rare case of indiscipline – not wearing topi, remaining absent – there are fines/ salary deduction : to keep the system running at zero defect and six sigma. Dabbawallas never stop – whatever be the season, whatever be the exigency ! Much of Mumbai eats because of these beautiful people. Ahilu says, we would stop only if the locals (trains) stopped : ‘ट्रेन बंद तो हम बंद’ – in all other exigencies, we are working.

What keeps a dabbawalla moving ? What is his ‘purpose of life’ ? What quality of life is he seeking ? What is his dream ?What ‘newness’ does he yearn for? Day after day, season after season, years after years, his entire youth and well into his old age, he does the same thing – the same routine : collects dabbas, travels by train, delivers dabbas.

He renders the above questions meaningless. His newness is his routine – the routine defines the purpose of his life. What he does, someone has to do. For not just the doer to keep moving – but for the bigger crowd, Mumbai to keep moving, keep eating 🙂 Dreams are not fulfilled empty stomach.

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